By Brant Carter
“Rip and replace” counts among the pithier terms in the history of telecommunications regulation. The phrase is vernacular for the U.S. Federal Communication Commission’s Secure and Trusted Networks Reimbursement Program, and it’s simple enough conceptually.
The U.S. government decided that 4G telecom equipment manufactured by Chinese manufacturers ZTE and Huawei presented an unacceptable national security risk. Companies that bought from ZTE or Huawei before June 30, 2020 must rip those systems out and replace them with approved 4G systems. Congress appropriated $1.9 billion to compensate carriers – many of them smaller regional and rural wireless carriers, wireless internet service providers, and cable companies – to get it done. Fail to comply (or get an extension) and the carrier risks going dark.
The pithiness of “rip and replace” belies its staggering complexity through a convergence of challenges. There’s serious financial pressure: 181 carriers have asked the FCC for $5.6 billion in proposed reimbursements for a long list of hardware, software, and services required to rip and replace, nearly three times what’s been appropriated. Supply chain problems are limiting the availability of replacement equipment. Rip and replace overlaps the 5G rollout, further burdening overworked contractors already struggling with an acute shortage of technicians. Given the nature of the smaller carriers who were more likely to have bought from Huawei and ZTE, rip and replace will touch thousands of towers in rural and remote areas, on hillsides, and on mountaintops, all presenting logistical hurdles and, not infrequently, limited access outside of the warmer months.
Such a formidable list of challenges puts planning and management at a premium in several ways. Justifying government reimbursement will require detailed documentation of what hardware and software you’re replacing, what you’re replacing it with and the service-related costs involved. (Rip and replace is about 4G and only 4G, for example, and while the FCC has published a long list of potential reimbursements, it’s not infinite.)
Efficiency will be indispensable to rip-and-replace deployments, and for reasons beyond the very real issues surrounding material and human resource constraints. Carriers are will push their contractors to combine rip-and-replace with already scheduled work. While the example applies to 5G rollout, AT&T’s “one climb” policy foreshadows what we can expect here. AT&T is upgrading to both C-band and 3.45-3.55 GHz equipment and expects its contractors to do both of them with one tower visit. With rip and replace, carriers may well expect the 4G equipment swap to happen at the same time as the removal of 3G equipment and, perhaps, the installation of 5G systems. Even if carrier policies aren’t stated as explicitly as AT&T’s, the pricing could be such that sending a crew out to a tower more than once would erase any profit margin anyway.
While it may be easier on staffing and more cost-effective to combine 3G, 4G, and 5G work in one site visit, doing so takes meticulous planning. Contractors will be on the hook for that planning. This degree of complexity, in this environment, at this scale, can overwhelm standard project management software – much less the spreadsheets that remain all too common tools of the trade. Deployment operations management solutions combining project management and work management capabilities across hundreds or thousands of distributed locations can help navigate a landscape combining highly repeatable elements with site-by-site variation based on equipment prerogative, accessibility, priority, staffing and material availability, and other factors.
One feature to look for is dynamic templatization. It allows for the quick, cookie-cutter establishment of common project elements with an ability to tailor the details of a given job site. For example, a tower due for a 5G install and a 3G removal might query the user as to whether there’s a rip-and-replace project tied to the effort. Click “Yes,” and the system adds the rip-and-replace template activities to the schedule, and those activities propagate through scheduling, resource planning, management dashboards, and other functions.
Usability and security are additional key considerations. Foist a cumbersome system on field personnel and their managers and they’ll revert to manual or semimanual processes. In addition to inherent inefficiencies of falling back on those outdated tools, doing so also can introduce the sorts of security issues that crop up when multiple contractors use diverse tools to track sensitive data such as tower locations and hardware types – ironic given the national-security impetus behind rip and replace.
Rip and replace is going to be hard work, but if done well – in particular, if getting it done a single truck roll motivates carriers to speed up 5G deployment as a complement to their 4G replacement – it should bring benefits to lesser-served communities while preserving carrier and contractor bottom lines. To do it well, though, will take a degree of excellence in planning and tracking that’s only now becoming standard in the telecom business.
Brant Carter is director of Industry Products at Sitetracker.
© 2023 Benzinga.com. Benzinga does not provide investment advice. All rights reserved.